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Heat Prompts School Closures

By Katie Ash — August 28, 2007 3 min read
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Less than a month into the school year, an extreme heat wave putting temperatures as high as 102 degrees in the South and Midwest United States has prompted a rash of school closings.

The 16,000-student Dayton school district in Ohio closed for two full days last week, bringing the total number of heat-related closings this school year to six. Temperatures soared to 95 degrees when the district decided to close its doors.

The district has five “calamity” days built into each calendar year, and is responsible for making up any instructional time lost beyond that, said Jill Moberly, a public information officer for the district.

“Before the year begins, our board of education must designate makeup days, and they have identified those dates,” she said. Any further time lost will be tacked onto the end of the school year, which is currently scheduled to end on June 5.

The district is in the middle of a rebuilding plan that will equip all the classrooms with air conditioning by 2010, thereby avoiding heat-related problems in the future.

Meanwhile, the 37,000-student Indianapolis public school district is experiencing similar problems. Only 39 of the district’s 76 schools are equipped with air conditioning, which forced district officials to close schools early two days last week when temperatures reached 94 degrees.

Of the 11 school districts in the state, Indianapolis is the only district that does not have air conditioning in all of its schools.

“Our goal and hope is that people will understand that when we talk about providing air conditioning [in our schools], it’s not a frill,” said Mary Louise Bewley, the director of school and community relations for the district.

Normally, schools are cooled by fans, but it has been a particularly hot summer for Indiana, Ms. Bewley explained.

Because schools were open for half the day, though, the district will not be required to make up for lost instructional time later in the year.

‘Extremely Unusual’

Even with air conditioning, some districts have decided that temperatures are simply too high to hold classes safely.

The 74,000-student Metropolitan Nashville public school district was operating on a half-day schedule for three days last week due to temperatures as high as 105 degrees.

“It is an extremely unusual situation for us,” said Woody McMillin, a spokesman for the district. “For us to have these temperatures for as long as we’ve had them without rain is very rare.”

Even with the air conditioning running, temperatures inside the buildings have climbed to uncomfortable heights. But school officials were most concerned about the level of heat students and faculty endured commuting to and from school.

“We do not have air-conditioned buses,” Mr. McMillin said. “And we were also concerned about the children walking to school.”

The Tennessee state department of education agreed to lump two of the half-days into one full day that the district will need to make up by the end of the year.

“We have five snow days built in, so if we don’t use all of them, we can turn one into a heat day,” Mr. McMillin said. “Or we could use a professional development day, when children wouldn’t usually come to school.”

Athletic Activities Continue

All three school districts have continued to hold athletic practices and games.

“Our athletic directors are trained with working with kids in hot weather,” said Ms. Bewley.

Each state sets its own regulations for conducting athletic activities in extreme heat. Generally, athletic directors are required to give students more breaks and keep them well hydrated. Some districts have pushed practices back until later in the day, or scheduled them for early in the morning, to avoid the heat.

“We’ve eliminated daytime practices, moved them to the evening, and implemented district policy on heat-related play,” Mr. McMillin of the Metropolitan Nashville schools said.

Also, in his district, extra timeouts are built into the games so the athletes can rest more frequently, Mr. McMillin said.

To avoid heat-related school closings at the beginning of the year, some parents have suggested that schools start later in the year, but so far school officials are not looking at any calendar changes.

“We just can’t react to the weather anomalies,” Mr. McMillin said. “You have to look at the long-term temperatures and averages and do the best job you can.”

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